First Impressions: The 50 Best Album-Opening Songs in Rap History

7. Nas "N.Y. State of Mind" (1994)

Producer: DJ Premier
Album: Illmatic
Label: Columbia


Stealthy and shuffling, "N.Y. State of Mind" could only have been written by someone familiar with the fine art of home invasion. At the time it was popular to sample sirens and police radio transmissions to evoke the paranoiac stew of ghetto reality but Nas and DJ Premier didn't need of that to bring Queensbridge to record. "N.Y. State of Mind" overlays two gorgeous pieces of 1970s jazz—"Mind Rain" by Joe Chambers and "Flight Time" by Donald Byrd—and from that point somehow channels every enshrouded sound of nighttime in an uncertain corner of New York City. There is fog and subway steam in this song, even though none of those sounds actually exist on the record. Even though it's the ultimate portrayal of rap style, its rhythms seem more attuned to the rhythms of thieves and boxers and taxi drivers. The atmosphere is not the result of a predetermined recipe but instead is something Nas conjures through sheer visual presence and creative willpower; and through the dark and deeply nostalgic architecture of DJ Premier. —Sam Sweet

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